There once was a brave knight—
No, wait. Let’s not call me a knight, that’s not right. Let’s try…
There once was some weirdo.
Yes, that’s better.
There once was some weirdo who broke into the cursed tower. There was a sickness going around too, but the tower had always been cursed, because a bunch of wizards and witches worked inside of it, and every once in a while a spell went off on its own, and that’s just life inside the tower…
But this weirdo was given an opportunity to break in and so they did, climbing up many floors to get into the cursed, sleeping space. They snuck past a queer-looking necromancer with a large sword and a skull painted on her face, past a young man in a very peculiar coat, and a creepy looking vampire before coming upon a cove of lonely books covered in moss and flowers. They thought the books were asleep. But they were very much not.
They were only waiting.
The books shifted and shimmied and screamed, ready to see the light again.
* * *
I worry a lot about not reading books “on time”. In my universe—in the small and insular world of New York City publishing—there often feels like a timeline for new releases. Some of us get copies in advance and are expected to read them before their publication date. We know how important pre-orders are, and so books arrive on our doorstep as soon as they’re released out into the world. Often, we’re reading and talking about the same new hot book all at the same time, and so if you’re not part of the conversation, you feel like you’re missing out. As someone who talks and writes about books professionally, I struggle with this a lot. There are so many good books out there, and sometimes it just isn’t possible to get to all of them.
Often this means I’m quiet about what I’m actually reading. I like taking my time with things, and I don’t have a strict list of what to read next—I choose based on what I’m in the mood for, which I hope I’m not alone in doing. But sometimes that means I’m just not up for reading the thing that everyone else is reading all at once (I remember fondly the Summer Everyone Read Circe), and I worry about catching up (that’s anxiety, baybeeee).
(Before you say anything—yes, I have started a list. Point still stands.)
I felt a lot of guilt about starting The Fifth Season in a fairly public way this year as part of Tor.com’s #TorDotReads series. Of course, it was made better by the fact that my fellow writer Leah Schnelbach also hadn’t read it, but I recognize N.K Jemisin as one of the best living writers period, and certainly a master of speculative fiction. My lack of knowledge about her work feels like a personal failure, and one that I was very excited to make up for. Be assured I was not disappointed. Jemisin’s work is overwhelmingly good, to the point where it’s almost disgusting. How dare she. How absolutely dare she. I’ll admit to feeling quite the book hangover (both a lovely and terrible feeling, all at once) after the last page.
The remedy, of course, was T.J. Klune’s The Extraordinaries. I say “of course”, but you should know that this book was so fucking cute it had me squealing and tweeting like a kid with a crush. Klune’s story about a queer teen obsessed with his local superhero is adorable and satisfying in its execution. Our protagonist, Nick Bell, is the sweetest dummy in all of literature and I love him so much. I love books that feel indulgent and nerdy, that don’t hide from tropes and pleasures and sweetness. So often in our reading lives we come across work that tries to subvert the expectations, but what if the expectations are, in fact, really good? What if tropes are tropes for a reason, and we allow ourselves to take joy in seeing things work out the way we hope they do? What if everything is happy and fun?
I’ll admit that I was expecting happy and fun with Amparo Ortiz’s Blazewrath Games as well. It’s a reading experience I was looking forward to; it’s rare to find Puerto Rican diaspora writers working in SFF (I’m pretty sure I can name all of them off the top of my head) so I’m always thrilled to find books by Puerto Ricans about Puerto Rico. Ortiz’s story about magical puertorriqueños centers young Lana Torres, a nonmagical human who joins her native island’s Blazewrath team, a dangerous magical sport played primarily on dragons. Of course, there’s also an international conspiracy afoot, because there can’t be international games without politics getting involved, and the relationships between humans, dragons, teammates, and families are tested. But listen, it made me cry. A LOT. Reading this brought up a lot of identity feelings I didn’t know I had. Lana’s struggle to be seen as Puerto Rican enough was so familiar and real, and I have to thank Ortiz for that. It was cathartic. A fantastic, action-packed read for everyone, but something truly special for Boricuas.
Hannah Abigail Clarke’s The Scapegracers made me feel seen too, in a way I wasn’t fully prepared for. As a person who was once suspended from school for bringing tarot cards in to read for my classmates, I was absolutely delighted by Clarke’s story about queer teenage witches. The Scapegracers crew are real and messy and weird and so unbelievably cool in a way that is both aspirational and perpetually untouchable, which brought up a lot of feelings for this former nerd who was always excluded by the cool kids. Of course, Sideways Pike (our queer witch) gets the shot I was always denied, plucked from obscurity in a very Mean Girls fashion to perform magic for the three most popular girls in school. Things go haywire, of course, and it’s everything you could possibly want from a teen witch story— a dash of Buffy, a little of The Craft, some of The Perks of Being A Wallflower, with stupid boys and creepy horror elements. Clarke’s lyric is a punch to the gut after chugging a Four Loko, and it’s all bathed in the glow of acceptance and friendship. I really wish I could reach back in time and hand this to my teenage self, and I’m also so happy to have it in my hands now. Cuz let’s face it, I’m still a gay nerd with a deck of tarot cards.
Ring Shout was, as you can expect, a very different reading experience. I knew author P. Djèlí Clark is also a historian, so I was excited to see how that would come to fruition in this story about the monstrous Klu Klux and the terrible spell that was cast by The Birth of a Nation, a 1915 film by D.W. Griffith that tells the origin story of the KKK. Maryse, our protagonist, has been given a sword to aid her in the fight against these monsters, and alongside her friends, confronts the evil that has taken over the country. Ring Shout sits on the crossroads between historical fiction, fantasy, and folklore, drawing from all three traditions to weave a story that had me googling references and marking beautiful passages and making playlists and feeling a lot of feelings. It is masterful and essential, and will fit on your shelf right next to Tochi Onyebuchi’s Riot Baby and Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing.
Okay, now everyone listen. No, I mean it, shut up for a second. We need to talk about Piranesi. I don’t… I really do not know how to talk about this book beyond a very high pitched scream and an emphatic grabbing of your knee. This shit is on another level. I genuinely think I descended into madness during the reading of this book, an experience I’ve only had once before (I also lost my mind reading The Hidden Girl and Other Stories by Ken Liu earlier this year, or maybe 10 years ago, who knows). And there’s something joyful and beautiful about the fact that I could not stop saying “oh my god” out loud, or grabbing my partner’s arm, or having to put the book down to catch my breath. But I also definitely felt like that Charlie Day meme—you know the one I’m talking about?
The fact of the matter is, Susanna Clarke knows exactly what she’s doing. Everything is calculated and precise; a grand design. Piranesi is absolutely bonkers. It’s so weird. I cannot express to you how much I loved it.
* * *
Now, I know what you’re thinking—Christina, these are all frontlist titles, but weren’t you just talking about not reading things on time? Didn’t you just say you miss major releases sometimes?
Yes, which is why it’s finally time for me to read Six of Crows. I wanted to read the original Grisha trilogy first. Leigh Bardugo’s oeuvre feels like a blind spot in my SFF education, which I intend to fully rectify. And this is something I struggle with a lot, maybe some of you do too—does it matter if you read an author’s work chronologically? If I’m trying to get to know her world, do I need to start at the beginning? As all of her books up until Ninth House are inter-related, where do I start? Fortunately, my friends at Book Riot do a series of Reading Pathways for authors with a lot of books under their belt, and it does help.
Here’s what I have coming up next:
Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger — This follows Elatsoe, the latest in a Lipan Apache family who can raise the ghosts of dead animals. Turns out, it’s a skill that comes in handy when a murder needs to be solved. I really magical murder mysteries, especially set within worlds that tend towards the magical realism side of things. This is a debut novel for Darcie Little Badger, who is not only a comic writer but also a scientist and an excerpt cosplayer.
The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner — I’ll admit I was unprepared for the uproar from my friends when I announced it was time to start this series, which turned into a coordinated re-read with some of the illustrious Tordotcom/Tor Books crew. It’s been a long time since I’ve dug into a series with this many entries, and I’m really excited to be swept away.
Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko — Centered on family, expectations, and destiny, Raybearer has already taken the world by storm and I cannot wait to join in the fun. I enjoy a bit of romance, but it’s nice to find books that don’t center romantic relationships as much, and have great magic and worldbuilding to boot.
Red Dust by Yoss — Yoss is a popular Cuban sci-fi writer who, for some reason, doesn’t seem to be well known in the States. His work is clever and cheeky and racial, poking at identity and nationalism and humanity in insightful ways. Red Dust is about an android detective and alien criminals, and is going to be absolutely bonkers.
This Town Sleeps by Dennis E. Staples — I love a genre-bending book, especially if it pulls the best from multiple genres. This Town Sleeps is set on an Ojibwe reservation in Minnesota, and deals with death, memory, and all the different ways humans can keep secrets.
Christina Orlando (they/them) is the Books Editor for Tor.com, they’re 19 and they never f*ckin learned how to read.